SoCal hockey fans, especially of the Anaheim Ducks persuasion, now know at least one thing for sure: their coach is a gambler. He put in an untested rookie on Saturday night after his early-season starter, Jonas Hiller, came in and mopped up on Thursday night in taking a win and getting his team back into the series with their cross-town rivals, the LA Kings.
Why was Hiller not the starter in game four after coming in and keeping his team from going down three games to zip? His numbers don’t look all that bad over his 25-game playoff career. His career playoff GAA is 2.27, and his save percentage is .934. Just for comparison purposes, Jonathan Quick of the Kings had 60 playoff games coming into Saturday night and 2.14 GAA with a .927 save percentage. In other words, Hiller was pretty much dead even with him. So why the panic and all the guessing? The only thing you can say, and Boudreau of Anaheim did say it after Thursday’s game three, is that Hiller hasn’t “been comfortable in here,” by which he meant, he’s been horrible at Staples Center (but not Thursday).
The fact that the coach put in John Gibson was not a huge surprise. Interestingly enough, though Gibson might be figured to be the backup, on the official sheet given to the media before the game, he wasn’t even listed. Instead, the second goalie was named as “Igor Bobkov.” (No, you’ve never heard of him.) So in went Gibson, who has, to be fair, played a fair bit in Norfolk lately, and thus comes in fresh and not, like some second-string goalies, cold.
But really, a rookie starting in a swing game that could put the other team on the road to winning a playoff series? Let’s let the story unfold in Boudreau’s words.
“I thought about it, and the overriding reason was, I thought in today’s game, he’s been playing, and he would give us the best chance to win. Each individual game is its own entity, and whatever lineup I put in, I think it’s those guys . . . this is the lineup that can win.” He said that he’d had feedback from people in the organization, and that they agreed with him. “It doesn’t matter what the cases are; I only think of how we can win this game. Whether it’s orthodox or unorthodox or whatever, it’s part of the decision-making process.”
So was he hoping for a goalie to steal? He said no, that Hiller can do that too. “I just thought tonight, that, when we call up guys and put them in the lineup, you know that their adrenaline is so high, you know that they’re going to be really good. In two weeks, he might come back down to earth, but I knew he was going to be really good tonight.”
He said also that part of the thinking was that if the Ducks lost Saturday, he couldn’t very well put Gibson in on Monday. “I thought that it would be really tough to put a young guy in like that when it could be an elimination game. So if he didn’t pass the test today, then we could come right back with Hilly on Monday, who has played in very big games.”
This, for those of you keeping track, is crazy talk. Planning for a future game and letting this one ride on that one is not how success happens in the playoffs, but you’ve got to commend the guy for his honesty, and his guts. He took a chance with a rookie, and though it worked out, it might not have, and that would have been disastrous. But that’s happened to Boudreau in the playoffs before.
It worked out, but how? Gibson was let off the hook early, not tested by the Kings. In period one, there were a couple of dangerous shots, but he saw them all the way. He was never under siege, despite the fact that the Kings had two power play chances. Their skills with the extra man are so out of synch on the night, however (coming in, they were hitting at 25%, not a bad number, and fifth in the NHL post-season) that they were outshot on one powerplay by a 2-0 margin. The shots reflected the flow of the game, in fact, with the Kings going out 4-0, the numbers evening up at 6-6, and the period ending 11-9, as noted. And so the rookie netminder exited the period with the shutout intact.
But the game wasn’t scoreless. The LA team sagged twice to let the Ducks score. The first was at even strength with the line of Perry, Getzlaf, and Smith-Pelly on the ice. The puck came out from behind off a backhand pass by Perry, made with his stick close to his body because he was too close to the net to get it any other way. It was tapped in by Smith-Pelly, his third playoff goal.
The other one was on the power play. A scramble in front ensued after Getzlaf had the puck with an open left side of the net and missed. As he was going behind the net, he banked it off of a sprawling Quick and in.
So who’s the better goalie? The one who has less dangerous shots directed at him, and in period one, that was Gibson. The other notable stat from the period is that his team blocked nine shots in front of him. Cliché alert: they played hard in front of him because they recognized the position he found himself in. But the fact that the Kings blocked just one shot might have signified something: the Ducks were not playing as aggressively as the Kings. And the LA team also recorded 24 hits to the Ducks’ eight. Hmm. What was going to happen if those trends continued?
Didn’t matter, because Sutter of LA pulled what was perhaps the biggest surprise of the year starting period two. He put Martin Jones in. Quick was not apparently hurt, as he was sitting on the bench with is baseball cap on. Jones had a great rookie year, but he’s played in just one NHL playoff game, a mop-up job in the first game of the San Jose series, in which he saw four shots, let in no goals, and was on the ice for eighteen minutes of action. (As you likely remember, it was a game the LA team lost.)
Think about that. This is game four with the Kings leading 2-1 in the series. They had played a largely even first period, though the Ducks had put two goals in. Neither could be charged to Quick in any way. Not even close. And the game was not out of reach at just a deuce behind. Lots of times this playoffs, if not here, then in other series, two goals have been erased as a deficit with no problem. And he changed from the goalie many see as the best in the world right now.
Sutter explained after the game: “It wasn’t difficult, but the thought process was that we’d given up two goals. . . . You know that I don’t pull the goalie easily.” The implication–Quick wasn’t playing at all well. But then he continued:
“I don’t think goaltending’s an issue, for our hockey team,” he said, and later added “They keep our top players at the perimeter,” like it was to the Ducks’ credit that they’d done that, but then the zinger: “I just think some of our guys have to play through that.”
In short, Sutter was not at all happy with how his best players had played. And as he got talking about the evening, things got punchy. He was asked what it would take to recover from the loss, and he responded with, “I don’t think we can.” And then worked through some comedy material so good it must have been thought of beforehand. He said, for instance, “It hasn’t felt like home ice has had any impact. We should have went to Anaheim last night and bussed over today.”
Back to the game; period two belonged to the Kings. The Ducks recorded precisely zero shots in the period. Maybe Jones has some kind of force field. Meantime, the Kings poured 12 on Gibson. Well, “poured” might suggest a danger and a plenty that were not exactly there. There were a dozen shots, a few dangerous.
Gibson was steady, not aggressive but not particularly passive either, and also sometimes lucky. For instance, the play collapsed to the Ducks’ net early, and three shots came on Gibson. The second two, by Williams and Doughty, were taken with the goalie down on the ground. None went in.
Gibson was interviewed by the media en masse after the game, and he said all the stuff you’d expect. “I got the call when Freddie was hurt. I thought I might have the opportunity to play, and I was excited. I’m glad I helped the team get a win tonight.” He followed that up with various other cliché’s that amounted to not being willing to take credit for the win, including crediting his defense and saying that the team hasn’t won anything yet, and that he would be glad when they won the series.
All of the goalscoring, by the way, was finished in period one. The Ducks then went on an extended no-shots streak, as was mentioned. They got one with four seconds left in P1, then didn’t record any in period two. They finally registered one at the five-plus minute mark of the third, and ended the night with 14, just three in period three.
That was enough to win, of course. “We have faith in whoever starts for us,” Cam Fowler said of the goalie issue. “We stand behind him, whoever [Boudreau] chooses.” But let’s be real—this may have made sense because putting Hiller in would have made it impossible to go with Gibson in game five. But honestly, the gamble was great, and had it not worked out, it would have been one more playoff mistake chalked up to Boudreau’s record. Fowler kind of skirted around that when he said, “It’s not the formula we would have chosen” talking about the way the won, “But it’s win, and we’ll take it.”
This series now carries on in every-other-day format, so the next meeting is Monday night.
Beleskey and Perreault were out for the Ducks, mixing up their lines. The most notable change: Smith-Pelly with Getzlaf and Perry on line one. They got the first goal, the eventual winner.
Follow me on twitter @growinguphockey because it’s the right thing to do.